U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo on opening a ‘doorway of hope’ for indigenous artists

AMNA NAWAZ: There is a fresh voice these days
leading the poetry world. Joy Harjo is the first Native American to
serve as poet laureate of the United States. Tonight, she will give her inaugural public
reading at the Library of Congress. She is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation,
who grew up in Oklahoma. Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with Harjo
in Tulsa to talk about her life and career. It’s part of our ongoing series on arts and
culture, Canvas. JEFFREY BROWN: A recent night at the Oklahoma
Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa. The leader of the band blowing her saxophone
is a poet. JOY HARJO, U.S. Poet Laureate: His feet are
made of his mother’s spiritual concern. JEFFREY BROWN: And not just any poet. Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek
Nation, is the new poet laureate of the United States, appointed by the Library of Congress,
to begin her term this month. JOY HARJO, U.S. Poet Laureate: It’s quite
an honor. And what is especially exciting to me is that
I’m carrying this for — it’s for America, but for indigenous peoples in particular. JEFFREY BROWN: You feel that? JOY HARJO: Yes. And it becomes a doorway. Yes, we’re human beings, and yes, some of
us are poets. Some of us are astronauts. Some of us are really good at fixing cars. But we’re human beings. And some of us write poetry. And so it makes a doorway of hope. JEFFREY BROWN: So people were surprised you
moved home, huh? JOY HARJO: Yes, they were. JEFFREY BROWN: Harjo, now 68, grew up here
in Tulsa in a mixed Native and white working-class neighborhood, child of a beautiful mother
of mixed Cherokee and European ancestry who loved to sing, and a handsome Creek father
Harjo adored, but whose drinking would lead to the end of the marriage. Does it make sense, when you look back to
that girl then, to now? JOY HARJO: Well, she still has the same loves
that I do. You know, there’s still music. I love poetry. I never thought I would be a poet. I mean, that — certainly, if you look in
this neighborhood, that wasn’t a career. (LAUGHTER) JOY HARJO: There are no poets here. JEFFREY BROWN: In her memoir, “Crazy Brave,”
Harjo writes of a childhood of joy and discovery, but also great pain, including a stepfather
who abused her mother, and eventually pushed Harjo to leave home for the Institute of American
Indian Arts, then an all-Native school in Santa Fe. A teenaged mother, she later attended the
University of New Mexico, where she was involved in the ’60s and early ’70s Native rights movement. Art was her first love. She continues to draw and paint to this day. Poetry didn’t come until her 20s. JOY HARJO: Poetry came along at that time. I basically put a pen in my hand, and that’s
how I came through it. And it had a lot to do with investigating
history and finding a voice when I felt that I had no voice. JEFFREY BROWN: She would go on to write nine
volumes of poetry, including the brand-new “American Sunrise,” often examining personal,
Native and national histories bound together. She traces her ancestors to the once-thriving
indigenous civilization that populated the Southeastern U.S. before being forcibly removed. Harjo recently taught at the University of
Tennessee in Knoxville, where she wrote the poems for her new book, including the line:
“I returned to see what I would find in these lands we were forced to leave behind.” JOY HARJO: I had come there, and we were living
up on a block that my great-great-great-great grandfather Monahwee, I knew he had stood
there when he used to go to Knoxville to steal horses. Well, he wasn’t really — they weren’t really
stealing them, because the horses were on stolen property. And I looked down into those beautiful trees,
toward those beautiful mountains, and said — asked — well, I heard my spirit ask: What
did you learn here? And that’s how it started. I know I came here with my dad. JEFFREY BROWN: In Oklahoma, Harjo took us
to the historic Creek Council House in Okmulgee, what became the capital of the displaced nation
in 1867. A plaque outside commemorates another distant
relative, Samuel Checote, who was born in Alabama and served as principal chief of the
Creek Nation here. This is a history that most people probably
don’t know. JOY HARJO: No, there’s… JEFFREY BROWN: The whole removal, the Trail
of Tears. JOY HARJO: No, usually I think most Americans
think the Trail of Tears is one trail, and it’s Cherokee. JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. JOY HARJO: But there were many trails of tears. Even the Navajo people had a trail of tears. And now there’s another trail of tears coming
up from the South. JEFFREY BROWN: So, you connect those — what’s
going on now at the border to… JOY HARJO: Definitely, because there was no
border before. It wasn’t that long ago, just a few generations. And this was the House of Warriors, which
is more like the — more like Congress. JEFFREY BROWN: There’s the continuity of history,
which we explored inside the council house, now a cultural center. JOY HARJO: He is probably one of the more
well-known Native poets of his time. He’s often published in some of the anthologies
of… JEFFREY BROWN: Is he going to be in yours? JOY HARJO: Yes, of course. JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s the world we live
in today, where Harjo has a residency in a Tulsa arts program and, among many other things,
is editing a new anthology of Native poets. You came of age at this moment of a very strong
Native political movement, right, of civil rights. JOY HARJO: Yes. JEFFREY BROWN: And I wonder where are we now. JOY HARJO: Back to the beginning. (LAUGHTER) JEFFREY BROWN: Backwards? JOY HARJO: Yes. These times are very similar to the times
of Andrew Jackson, the times of Indian removal, with — where, you know, hatred, the utter
hatred of not everyone, not — it’s not everyone. In fact, I think those forces of hatred are
really a relatively small part of the population. But whatever this force is, it’s the same
force that said Natives weren’t human. It’s the same force that came in and said,
well, you are more powerful if you have more money than anyone else, or that you’re more
powerful if you have light skin, or you’re more powerful if you’re male. There’s something about that that’s destructive
to everyone, because we were all created by a creator who loved us. JEFFREY BROWN: Native rights, women’s rights,
poetry, music, which she didn’t take up seriously until her 40s, and a sense of history. JOY HARJO: History is people. History is stories. It’s poetry. And that’s what I love about poetry, and that’s
how poetry teaches me. Poetry has taught me that you can time-travel
in a poem. You can get to know people in a poem. And poetry is the place you can come to when
you have no words. JEFFREY BROWN: And when the performance is
over, the sax-playing, history-seeking poet laureate relaxes by shaking it all out on
the dance floor. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown
in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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